Facebook ponders its place in the Internet of Things

By Richard Nieva , written on May 17, 2013

From The News Desk

Amidst all of the buzz surrounding connected devices and ubiquitous computing, there's Facebook, which wants to move beyond connecting mere humans. Cory Ondrejka, Facebook’s director of mobile engineering, says the social network is in a unique position to tie together all of the disparate devices that make up the Internet of things – the category of everyday objects, like scales, toasters, watches, glasses and whatever else you can think of, having wi-fi and data-collecting capabilities. Along the way a number of questions will need to be answered, such as who will receive this information, what usefulness will it have, and how will privacy play out.

Take the who part. For devices that send out updates to social networks – like, say, the Nike FuelBand tweeting out how fast you ran a mile -- one big question going forward will be discriminating who gets those updates. “How do you think about where that info goes, and how you want to share it?” asked Ondrejka at Techonomy Media’s “Man, Machine and the Network” event last night.

The success of those products' social sharing functions on Facebook will depend on finding the right use cases, and the right audience. Ondrejka uses the Nest learning thermostat as a prime example. The device is wi-fi enabled, and, among other things, automatically changes the air temperature in a home according to a user’s preferences, and allows him to control it remotely. The notion of sharing the temperature of one’s home on a social network sounds pointless until you take into account certain contexts, he says.

For example, if your aging parents own one, getting thermostat updates could be a lightweight way to make sure they're safe and healthy, with the temperature fluctuating as the result of people inhabiting the house. (Of course, you could also give your folks a call to make sure they are fine, but the example gets the point across, and it does function as an odd type of push notification.) Even more useful, if the temperature rises so high that you can presume the house is on fire, it would be helpful for the neighbors to get that temperature update.

For Facebook, it’s a dive back into the oldest contentious discussion in the company’s history (even before people started squabbling over the IPO): privacy. Author David Kirkpatrick, who interviewed Ondrejka during the fireside chat – and wrote “The Facebook Effect” – was quick to point out that Facebook was the first major Internet property to focus on bringing privacy controls to the forefront. Of course, given the backlash that often surrounds issues of users' privacy, that will do little to mitigate users concerns.

Ondrejka said that one of the stats that Facebook watches most closely is how often people change the privacy settings on individual posts – tailoring what audience gets to see the update. That indicates how simple the privacy controls are, and provides insight into user behavior. “The natural extension of that is with devices, and information on things like how healthy you are,” he said. “You want to know who gets access to that.”

He admitted that no developers or brands have used a connected device’s sharing features in any prominent way yet on Facebook’s platform, but claimed it's only a matter of time before more devices become connected devices, and users will operate them through Facebook. Tailoring the audience for such posts seems in line with the company's recent strategies. More broadly, Facebook has made a big bet on private messaging, and has crowed that messages sent on Facebook Messenger have quadrupled since last year. It’s also the reason the company  put Chat Heads on both iOS and Android, when it was initially introduced as part of the Facebook Home suite.

So the company has been working on improving the experience of small-audience messaging and posting. That's probably a good idea when your bathroom scale has the ability to tell all your Facebook friends that you put on 10 lbs.